I woke up Sunday the 19th at five thirty am. This is a disgustingly early time for a Sunday morning, but I had a good reason. After a quick shower and a donning of many layers, I stepped outside at approximately 6:30 and set off at a steady jog to the train station of Lillois. I am almost always late for my train, so I always end up in a steady jog. Followed by a sprint. Followed by limping fast walk. Followed by another sprint. And then a very sweaty and red Audrey gets on the train.
Anyway, the weather was wonderful. Something in the air reminded me of sping in South Carolina with my grandparents, even though it was only a toasty forty degrees. After that famous cold snap Europe went through, forty degrees felt like heaven.
My train was fifteen minutes late, making me worried about catching my connecting train, but it came with time to spare. I was the only one on the train at such an ungodly hour, and tired enough to give the conductor the wrong pass—I have several—which was sorted out in a couple of awkward and confused minutes. I was in exceptionally high spirits.
Nivelles Marchienne au Point
Marchienne au Point La Louviere Sud
La Louviere Sud Binche
All this because the train going from Lillois to Brussels was having issues.
Anyway, after my lvl FIVE train skillz, I arrived in Binche at around 9:30 in the morning.
You probably haven’t heard of the Carnival of Binche—or maybe you have, I don’t know. But it’s one of the most famous carnivals in Europe outside of Italy. Dating back to 1899, the carnival is filled with tom-foolery and tradition that I was going to be not only an observer of, but a participator in.
I’ve mentioned my friend Sarah several times. Well, her first host mother and father are musicians in the carnival, and have been going for over twenty years—so they have a lot of connections. This blog will give you a taste of the long days I spent in Binche.
I was met at the train station of Binche by my friend, Annick, Dominique, and Clement, the family I would be spending Carnival with.
Each society makes up a secret costume that is revealed Sunday morning. Each society is followed around by a drummer or several, playing extremely complex rhythms. The Gilles must always be holding something in their hands, a stick, a banner, something. Then they march around.
We took in the sights for the morning. I danced with a gille in a kind of jig like fashion. You’ll see yellow flowers called Mimosas in a lot of my pictures—these are the traditional flowers of carnival and are often pinned to clothes or hats. Annick, the host mother of my friend, introduced me to a man as “the American” and he greeted me with a cheek kiss, took off his mimosa pin with a white rose in it, and handed it to me. I thanked him and went on my merry way. It was only after that someone explained to me that the man who had given me the flowers was the mayor of Binche!!! How cool is that??
We also went to an ancient wall of binche, where there was this old circular guard house that sooo many people crammed into! Apparently it’s tradition to drink champagne in this room, which the family and I did.
Lunch was raw salmon, shrimp, champagne, bread, and pasta at Joel’s house, a friend of the family’s. After lunch, the musicians were allowed to join the drummers. We spent the afternoon and into the early morning (3 am) marching around and merry-making.
The children’s day.
Lundi Gras is celebrated for the children. We woke up early (6 am. After going to bed at 3 am. Ugh) to get into the center of Binche for 8. We waited outside a bar that’s traditionally for the musicians until it opened a little while later. Everyone drank these strong liquors based from Strawberries, which did well to warm up in the cold at 9am! The musicians played a song in the bar…and then we were off! Monday’s mimosa’s are traditionally pinned with an Iris, so Dominique bought us all one like that. The musicians did this odd sort of parade/march to many of the bars in the center of Binche, following the people dressed all in blue/violet. At each bar we got a drink. We also played a game with about two hundred other people, where all the women lined up on one side of the street, and all the men on the other. At the beat of the drum, they all tried to change sides of the street by rushing the opposite sex. Anyone who failed to cross (was apprehended by someone--Clement thought it would be funny to do it to me)was forced into the center to do something humiliating like dancing or push-ups.
We returned to the house we were sleeping at for a hardy lunch of pork, green beans and potatoes. The house was a bit outside of Binche, about ten minutes by car, and somehow it turned out that there was always just ONE more person than the car could reasonably hold. So I got to sit on a lot of laps. The house we were at was also extremely…interesting in style. And the woman we shared it with spoke only german. So.
Also, the older guys, who had a little too much champagne (OR JUST ENOUGH) put on a record of traditional songs and danced around in circles with sticks.
We returned to Binche and walked into town to watch the march of the children. Today is the day that kids can dress up as whatever they want. Then little groups of them slowly make their way to the grand place in front of the trainstation, where there are later fireworks. As the groups slowly make their way in the traditional slow march, a group of musicians and drummers follow them playing traditional, upbeat songs. Among the groups of children, someone will occasionally throw a piece of THING of fire, and it will create and extraordinarily bright flame, which the children gather around in a circle. This also when the orange throwing starts. I was lucky enough to witness the fireworks and a lot of the march from a third story window—we just had to watch out for flying oranges.
Now, today is the most famous day. The last day before lent. We woke up early—three am, to be in Binche at 4 am. (I was woken by the song of “Joyeuse Anniversaire” Happy Birthday) We went straight to a family’s house in the center—friends of Annick and Dominique, to see the dressing of a Gille de Binche.
If you google Gille de Binche, you’ll see these odd, fat men with scary masks and an elaborate costume. All the Gille in Binche must wear the same costume, and stuff their upper half with straw. This is so every Gille is roughly the same size and promotes a sense of equality. And the dressing is a very special occasion. We hung at out the house, drinking champagne and eating crackers until—SUDDENLY!—the sounds of drums started to approach. The door was thrown open and there was an already dressed Gille with his own band of drummers doing the shuffle dance of the Gilles. We exited the house and Annick whipped out her clarinet to play the traditional song. After, everyone entered the house of champagne. We followed the Gilles from house to house, doing a little shuffle dance the whole way. Once the Gille exited the house, Annick would play the song and then we’d be allowed in for refreshments. We gathered at least 100 people walking with us by the end of the two hour ceremony. We all ate "breakfast" at this little under ground, vaulted-ceiling'ed cellar; a breakfast of raw salmon, oysters and white wine. Imagine that after a lot of champagne. At 8 am.
Eventually, all the Gilles go to the grand place in front of the trainstation, and then leave together to go to the grand place of Binche, in a looooong shuffling march. We stopped into several bars, where I was, again, sung happy birthday. Much of this day is a blur of bars and avoiding Gilles, actually.
There are many traditions involved in this day. One is the DONNING OF THE MASKS, sometime between 9 and noon. They don’t wear the masks past noon. So the masks are really just a three or four hour things.
We went back to the house for a lunch of French onion soup (home made! Mmm) and…uh…I don’t remember. Soup must have been good. Then Sarah and I chilled out in our sketchy upstairs apartment. We were supposed to take a nap but we didn’t. At around four we ate a dessert of apple tart and left for Binche. Parking was hard to find, so we ended up separating from the rest. Dominique went off to go play music with Clement, and Sarah and Annick and I were left together. We parked at a friends house then FAST WALKED to this huuuge parade. We got into the parade by roughly pushing innocent bystanders aside and hopping a surprisingly tall fence (my skinny jeans weren’t pleased). This is THE parade of Binche—and we weren’t watching, we were IN it!! The Gille de Binche had all donned these huge hats of ostriche feathers, and were all rather violently throwing oranges into the crowed—meant to bring luck to the catcher. I got oranges—accept the Gilles gently passed them to me instead. We watched windows and people be pelted. Every once and a while a gille would have to take off his huge heavy hat for a while and rest his head. Some societies require the Gilles wear hats, and for some it’s optional. The society we were marching in front of required it, which was cool.
We marched in between the musicians and Gilles. The musicians have a HARD job, especially the drummers. They have to memorize more than 26 songs and rhythms, all of which are shockingly complex. And they don’t play the same song at the same time—I’ll get to that in a bit.
We had to leave the parade for a bit (A LOT OF SHOVING) to grab some drinks at a bar. Trying to enter is again was hell—luckily some drummers Annick knows convinced the police to let us back in! All the Gilles marched to the grand place (there must have been at least a thousand of them) and made a huge circle. OH! Before I forget, another tradition is that a Gille can’t go anywhere by himself—he has to be followed by a drummer at all times. He also can’t pee in the outside peeing-trowls they have set up, so he must find a bar and use the bathroom there. Followed by a drummer. They also can’t be drunk OR drink outside. They can drink inside.
Anyway, they made this huge circle with the musicians in the center. And me a Sarah, cause we’re special.
Then, the Gilles split up again into their societies, each followed by a group of musicians. They all walk around Binche (maybe 50 of them) taking breaks at bars until early in the morning!
Now, like I said, the musicians don’t play the same song as a different society at the same time. So when to society’s paths meet, the musicians (drummers especially) have to keep the beat the same and not accidentally get confused by the other group! It creates quite the cacophony!
They also started throwing those pretty red glowing things into the mix!
On another note, the shuffle dance and a lot of champagne is not good for your bladder. I thought I was going to die several occasions.
We ate dinner quickly at a little italian place and then went to the grand place for the most spectacular fire works of my life. A lot of the fire works were suspended OVER the crowd--I could feel the bits of gun powder hitting my skin! But it was gorgeous.
At the end, they burned a sign that said “PLVS OVLUTRE” which is an old Wallonian saying, meaning “Good New Year” or “Until Next Time”
And that was my birthday! 19 years and counting!